The narrator walks through the wilderness and finds a den in which he lies down to sleep. He begins to dream and sees a man clothed in rags, carrying a Book and bearing a burden on his back.
As the man (who is called Christian) reads the Book, he begins to weep. His family thinks that he is mentally unbalanced, and so he leaves his home to find relief from his burden. He encounters a man named Evangelist, who points him the way to the Wicket Gate, lit by a guiding light. There he will find relief from his burden.
Christian starts running toward the Light, ignoring the cries of his family and friends, who try to stop him in his supposed madness. Two of his neighbors, Obstinate and Pliable, overtake him. Obstinate urges him to give up his madness and return home, but Christian refuses to listen to him. Pliable decides that he will journey with Christian in his quest for peace.
Christian and Pliable are speaking of Christian’s search when they both fall into the Slough of Despond. Pliable, seeing what has resulted from his joining Christian, climbs out of the Slough and returns home.
A man named Help arrives to aid Christian in his escape from the swamp, telling him that there are steps through the Slough if he had but looked for them. He explains that the Slough is the result of all the fears and doubts of those like Christian who try to escape their burden. The Governor of the land has spent sixteen hundred years trying to repair the Slough, with little result.
Christian resumes his journey and meets a man called Mr. Worldly Wiseman, who tells him that his burden can be removed without trouble at a nearby town called Morality by a man named Legality. He points the way to Christian, who departs from the path directed to him by Evangelist.
As he approaches a large mountain, he sees that it is steep, with fire coming out from it. He fears that the mountain will fall on him. Evangelist arrives and asks Christian why he has left the way.
Ashamed, Christian tells him of Mr. Worldly Wiseman’s advice. Evangelist tells him that Morality and Mr. Legality place people in bondage, so they cannot help him to ease his burden. He urges Christian to return to the path to the Wicket Gate. Christian fears that he has sinned past all forgiveness, but Evangelist assures him that he has not.
Christian runs toward the Wicket Gate, ignoring all questions and pleas from those he meets on the way. He approaches the Wicket Gate and sees a sign that tells him to knock and the way will be opened to him.